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What Makes the Toronto International Film Festival a Unique Film Event Each Year

By Robert Koehler | Indiewire September 17, 2013 at 10:19AM

In the sport of film festivals, Teams Cannes or Venice have good, bad and in between years. But when it comes to Team Toronto, it's in a whole other league. It may not even be the same sport.
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The Railway Man

In the sport of film festivals, Teams Cannes or Venice have good, bad and in between years.

But when it comes to Team Toronto, it's in a whole other league. It may not even be the same sport.

That's because no matter how thorough one can survey the world's largest film festival --- this year’s program, which ended Sunday, tallied 288 features and 78 shorts -- no final gauge can be made of the artistic success of a single year of Toronto. I've seen 84 features and 19 shorts in the lineup (31 of the features seen at previous festivals), and couldn’' possibly report that 2013 was an up, down or middling year.

It doesn't matter, and here's why: Everyone who attends has a different Toronto International Film Festival. And unlike any other festival in the world, TIFF is what you make it. This can make it intimidating, even a mess, especially to those new to the film festival game. But the picture becomes clearer by keeping some factors in mind. These are a few of them gleamed from the latest edition.

TIFF IS MANY FESTIVALS AT ONCE

Originally inspired by the festival-of-festivals approach innovated in North America by the sadly long-departed FILMEX (the Los Angeles International Film Exposition), TIFF was originally known as the "Toronto Festival of Festivals." The simple and beautiful idea was to cherry-pick from the international festival circuit, generally keep world premieres to a minimum, and present a non-competitive showplace for Toronto moviegoers.

This has obviously radically changed in some respects. Now, fully half of TIFF’s lineup is comprised of world premieres, with the heat on those unveiled by studios and distributors for the start of Oscar season. Both accidentally and on purpose, TIFF has thus become a nexus for the fall film sales market, with the trade press measuring the festival's success on the number of film buys scored.

Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal

But this conceals what's actually going on inside. TIFF is actually several festivals running at once, allowing the viewer to pick and choose between them. In this way, it's still a "festival of festivals," only with the terms changed. You're going to one festival, but you're really going to many festivals at the same time -- your pick how many you want to attend.

This year’s "auteur festival" ranged from Albert Serra's hypnotic Casanova-meets-Dracula "The Story of My Death" to Jean-Marie Straub's lucid contemplation of Montaigne, "Le Conte de Michel de Montaigne," or two works of filmmakers looking at filmmaking -- Corneliu Porimboiu's smart and subtle "When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism" and Jafar Panahi's latest "illegal" movie made inside Iran, "Closed Curtain."

On the other side of TIFF, the "movie star festival" included a sea of familiar faces: Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in "The Railway Man," the ubiquitous Chris Hemsworth in "Rush," Meryl Streep vs. Julia Roberts in "August: Osage County," Clive Owen in two Gala red-carpet titles, "Words and Pictures” and "Blood Ties," Jennifer Aniston in "Life of Crime," and Jake Gyllenhaal under Denis Villeneuve's direction in a pair of unlike thrillers -- "Prisoners" and "Enemies."

READ MORE: "12 Years a Slave" Tops Indiewire's Toronto Critics Poll

Which is nothing next to Daniel Radcliffe and Benedict Cumberbatch in six movies between them: "The F Word," "Kill Your Darlings" and "Horns" for the former; TIFF opener "The Fifth Estate," "12 Years a Slave" and "August: Osage County" for the latter. Biggest of all was Sandra Bullock, literally taking her career into outer space in the astonishing "Gravity" (which also overlapped in the auteur category, with director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron at the height of his powers).

And here's another side to this past TIFF: The "long movie festival." The generous list of choices included the longest and best, Lav Diaz's angry, tragic epic, "Norte, The End of History" (250 minutes), as well as Frederick Wiseman's well-received "At Berkeley" (244 minutes), Wang Bing’s barely disguised tribute to Wiseman’s seminal "Titicut Follies," the 227-minute "Feng Ai," or Philip Groning’s 175-minute "The Police Officer’s Wife." There was no single film I heard recommended more in my unscientific survey of general audience viewers than Agnieska Holland's Czech '69 drama, "Burning Bush," clocking in at 234 minutes.  

YES, IT'S CURATED -- SORT OF

Some festival watchers complain that the sheer vastness of Toronto -- at the height of the schedule during weekends, no less than 19 or 20 films are screening simultaneously -- loses the supposed purity and elegance of a curated program selection. But that complaint misses the mark.

Sections such as Wavelengths, Midnight Madness, TIFF Docs, TIFF Kids, City to City, Future Presentations and the revivals under the helm of TIFF Cinematheque all bear the mark of the programmers behind them. Wavelengths’ Andrea Picard and Midnight Madness’ Colin Geddes have arguably become the most identified "author" programmers at TIFF: Their respective lineups are unmistakably their own (Picard selects with a sharp eye for radical experimentation mixed with classical cinephilia; Geddes looks to the latest outré examples in horror and fan-boy genres), and for the first time in Toronto history, appropriately with Ben Wheatley's mushroom-fueled "A Field in England," a Wavelengths film played at Midnight Madness ground central, the Ryerson Theatre.

Gravity, Bullock, Clooney

Although he shares in the selection, the festival's doc section remains very much under the guidance of Thom Powers, while Dimitri Eipides was able this year to bring his long and intensive experience programming Greek cinema to bear on the City to City program focused on Greece, where near-economic collapse has arrived hand-in-hand with some talented and hyper-dark filmmakers, exemplified by Alexandros Avranas' Venice prize-winning "Miss Violence." While many longtime observers in Toronto lament the increasing diminution of the former Cinematheque Ontario (now TIFF Cinematheque) in the huge TIFF universe, programmer James Quandt was still able to bring his superb grasp of film history and authorship to a selection that included Ozu's "An Autumn Afternoon," Rossellini's "Rome Open City" and Chris Marker's "Le Joli Mai."

My own viewing, at least in the first week, tended to alternate between the heavily anticipated Oscar season fare, such as "Gravity" and "The Fifth Estate," and what turned out to be an extraordinary session for Wavelengths. But I also wanted to make time for what sounded like interesting thriller and crime genre movies, which was encapsulated by TIFF Gala closer "Life of Crime," writer-director Daniel Schechter’s surprisingly fine and ultra-faithful adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "The Switch," which had the additional emotional impact of the great Leonard just having died. Less identifiably curated, the Vanguard section nevertheless contained a throughline of Leonardesque storytelling, such as Chung Mong-Hong's funny/nasty "Soul."

Winnowing things down to such sections, a viewer in Toronto escapes not only the Oscar season noise but the sheer inchoate nature of any given season's avalanche of new releases and movies for sale -- precisely what the mainstream media aims to define as every year's essential TIFF. Not only do the sections reveal a given programmer's taste and inclinations, they tell a story. Wavelengths, for example, told viewers that the term "experimental" has to be redefined, maybe even retired, such was the rangy nature of the work on display. Trade out "experimental" for author Gene Youngblood's useful term "expanded cinema," and you get the idea.

SKIP WHAT’S COMING SOON

When programming festivals and having chances to chat with audiences, my first suggestion to those who appear to at their wit’s ends with the typical American consumer's dilemma -- too many choices all at once -- is this: Avoid what's coming soon. Some viewers may be tempted by the desire to be the first on their block to catch, say, the lavishly reviewed "The Dallas Buyers Club," but they'd do well to just say no.

Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush."
HBO Europe Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush."

TIFF's sheer volume makes this decision remarkably easy. Besides the steady raves for "Burning Bush," the other item I most often overheard in Toronto were audience members remarking along the lines of, "Well, that's coming out in two weeks, but this one, we might never see again."

Exactly. It's long been the case that movies perceived with high artistic quotient and low commercial potential will have the hardest time breaking through into the North American marketplace, but now, the conditions for more challenging art cinema and even mainstream foreign-language titles are at their dreariest ever. The most gold-plated of Cannes winners, such as Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color," will have an uphill climb, but the revelatory experience that is Ben Rivers' and Ben Russell's "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness" is going to have an extremely hard time reaching big screens beyond and even including the typically select cities of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston.

And it's precisely this kind of work -- these, and such memorable TIFF '13 gems as "La última pelicula,” Raya Martin's and Mark Peranson's hilariously trippy re-do of Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" and "American Dreamer," Serra's "Story of My Death," Stephanie Spray's and Pacho Velez's sublime debut "Manakamana," Tsai Ming-liang’s "Stray Dogs," Ramon Zurcher's amusing Berlin Forum discovery "The Strange Little Cat" and even a straightforward and tough work of fine storytelling like Yuval Adler's "Bethlehem" -- are predictably going to be among the movies that stay with you for weeks after the festival noise drifts away, and the movies that will surely be the last to hit your local art cinema. If one even exists near you anymore.

This article is related to: Toronto International Film Festival, Festivals, Reviews, Wavelengths, Midnight Madness, The Strange Little Cat, Story of My Death